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Face-Lifts on Downtown Skyline

Landmark AT&T Center is among the towers getting `re-skinned' as owners seek to cash in on the area's boom.

October 19, 2006|Cara Mia DiMassa | Times Staff Writer

Maybe turning 40 was a sign. The look that once was so stylish now feels a little dated. The complexion is getting a little rough.

Is a little cosmetic surgery in order?

The owners of the 35-story AT&T Center on the southern edge of downtown Los Angeles think so. So workers are beginning to remake the landmark tower, replacing the 1960s-era square metal cladding with a cutting-edge translucent metal skin that when completed will change the look of downtown's skyline.

The skyscraper -- perhaps better known by its old name, the Transamerica Tower -- would be come the latest L.A. building to be "re-skinned."

Giving face-lifts to buildings has become popular across Los Angeles but particularly downtown, where property owners attempt to cash in on the central city's development boom by giving their buildings a fresh look.

When complete, the AT&T building will look more like a glimmering rectangle, its distinctive penthouse restaurant somewhat obscured by the cladding.

"It was tired and outdated and a little run-down. It just didn't have a positive image in the marketplace," said Steve Briggs, a principal partner at LBA Realty.

"So many things are happening in the South Park [area of downtown]. We knew the building had great architectural bones, but it needed to be modernized and updated."

The project consists of placing new metal panels (in a neutral tone) on top of the brown terra-cotta tiles that have been a trademark. The building was designed by William K. Pereira and Associates -- the firm behind many midcentury L.A. landmarks -- and completed in 1965.

It turns out that in architecture, as in much else, sometimes the way to look at things anew is to put on a brand-new face.

Re-fronting a building is an inexpensive way to re-create a structure with a new look. And it's a practice that dates to the Roman Emperor Hadrian.

In modern times, the process can involve stripping out an old facade or placing something new on top of the existing design, using materials such as tile, metal, even Styrofoam. It usually involves fewer zoning hurdles than a new building.

In the case of AT&T Center, the refacing will both brighten the look and provide new insulation and waterproofing.

In Hollywood, the 6565 Sunset Building, originally constructed in 1965, was re-clad in titanium-blue reflective glass.

The Westwood Center was reworked in the late 1990s, the 1965 building's concrete skin and aggregate panels replaced by a glass curtain wall.

In downtown, a face-lift of 811 Wilshire replaced the small blue tiles that covered the mid-'60s skyscraper with more than 1,100 aluminum and stainless-steel panels. A few years ago, the Union Bank tower on Figueroa Street was significantly reworked.

But in an environment where everything old becomes new again, the issue of whether to re-clad a building is not without controversy.

"The general issue of re-cladding has become more controversial in recent years," said Ken Bernstein, manager of the office of historic resources in the city's Planning Department, "particularly as we have seen a new appreciation for the architectural value of the 'recent past.'

"In many cases," said Bernstein, the former director of preservation issues for the Los Angeles Conservancy, "architectural styles that once seemed tired or dated have won new appreciation in recent years. In some cases, that happened before the buildings have been remade, and in other cases, we have seen significant makeovers of buildings go forward."

Bernstein said he could not comment specifically on the AT&T Center project.

But architect Andy Cohen, executive director of the architectural firm Gensler, said that the building is leaking and "the sun really creates a lot of heat gain in the building. By dealing with the exterior skin, it creates energy efficiency in the building and also fixes the waterproofing and leaking problems."

Cohen said his firm was sensitive about the historic nature of the building -- and the final design, he said, would maintain its architectural integrity.

"That's been a real push on our part," he said.

While the debate among many preservationists focuses on whether re-cladding is an appropriate way to save a building from possible remodeling, another movement is underway too.

As some old downtown office buildings are being converted to residential spaces, property owners are finding that it makes historical and commercial sense to bring their buildings back to the way they once were -- at least in part to appeal to residents who say they value the historic nature of the structures.

Often, those restorations involve stripping away the cladding the building acquired over the years as its use -- and prevailing architectural styles -- changed.

Two years ago, the Los Angeles Conservancy awarded seven grants for local buildings -- most of them along Broadway -- to rehabilitate their facades.

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